36 Hours of Madness: How Lenovo Employees Put on a Show

On the eve of Lenovo Tech World 2017, we thought it would be cool to take you back to last year’s event in San Francisco. This photo essay peels back the veil to reveal all the elation, frustration and hard work that go into throwing a giant tech party for a big company like Lenovo.

The planning began more than a year ahead but our story here begins a day-and-a-half before the show as Lenovo employees fly in from every corner of the world. Transcending language and culture barriers, they come together to share a sleepless adrenaline rush and build out what amounts to a big one-day rockshow for tech nerds.

The Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco’s Nob Hill is a madhouse. There’s clutter and chaos everywhere. Half-packed boxes, sound cords, drills and saws litter the sunny entryway while mysterious bangs occasionally punctuate the calm inside the decades-old theater. In the center of all this is a team of dedicated Lenovo employees, everyone from the CEO to the social media guru to the loyal aide, gathered around a smattering of tables, coffee cups and computers. This is Lenovo's Tech World team: a group of plucky devotees committed to introducing a newer, braver, more rebellious Lenovo to the world.

Yes, Tech World is, as Chief Marketing Officer David Roman says, Lenovo's “biggest moment of the year.” It is a chance to show off new cutting-edge smartphones packed with big cameras, augmented reality or snap-on speakers. It is a chance to show off Lenovo's durable computers and powerful servers. But, for employees, it’s also a chance to share with the world why their work matters, why Lenovo is the tech company you can't ignore and why they are different for the sake of being better.

It isn't just about marketing at Tech World. For the hundreds of employees here—and the thousands who have worked on the conference from afar—Tech World is personal. The conference begins in just 36 hours, a day-and-a-half that promises to be filled with sweat, stress and grind, all in pursuit of smashing success.

CONSTRUCTION: 36 HOURS TO GO
Long before construction began, design lead Rebecca Welles was hard at work envisioning the annual event’s color scheme, light design, stage setup and layout.

Each color, font, table, sticker, banner and sign began with her. She exudes excited energy, fretting over the details of stickers that go on the sides of each stair tread. A fellow employee suggests that she take the stickers home after Tech World. For a half-second, she seems to consider it.

Rebecca is a walker-talker, and she does both with grace as she wades through piles of packing wrap and loose extension cords to make her way to the “bowels” of Tech World. This is the bottom floor where workers and journalists can cram in a bit of work, get a bite to eat or grab a quick nap while the show rages upstairs.

For as many crowded, chaotic spaces as there are here, there are also a lot of empty voids to be filled. As lead designer, Rebecca takes a hands-on approach. She pauses to rearrange a table’s layout or scoot some furniture this way or that. Gazing at an image of a teddy bear bouncer, Rebecca sets a pugnacious tone when it comes to marketing the Lenovo brand. “It is about setting an attitude,” she starts to say, then pauses to slide a chair a few inches to the left.

If Rebecca has her way, that attitude will come through during every moment of Tech World. Lenovo’s business is healthy but it is still not a household name among global consumer brands so this display of its rebellious spirit must travel far and win hearts. 

This will require a lot of dedication—and calories. Backstage, workers cram Pop Tarts and gummy worms into their mouths between unloading semis brimming with furniture, movable walls and stage equipment. Once the trucks are unloaded, step two begins: unpacking and arranging, all according to Rebecca’s careful plan and design. While Tech World’s walls are being erected around them, Lenovo employees must attend to much smaller details. The demo booths themselves require careful attention, ensuring the right light bulb gets screwed in here, the proper background hung there.

In the midst of adjusting lighting or arranging the new smartphones, fellow employees drop by one another’s booths to catch up with each other. While Tech World is inarguably for the public, it also provides a backdrop for an employee reunion of sorts, bringing together Lenovo employees from across the world in one space.

In the eye of this storm sits Lenovo's CEO, Yang Yuanqing, lovingly known by vice presidents and interns alike simply as “YY.” This is his first visit to the Masonic Auditorium, which usually hosts pop and jazz concerts. With no sign of a band in sight, YY will command the venue’s stage, carrying the company’s image for two hours during his keynote presentation. Like a true tech rockstar, he looks cool, calm, collected and camera-ready.

YY’s staff leads him on a tour of the venue, which is looking pretty ramshackle at the moment, demo booths in various states of disrepair and lighting equipment dangling haphazardly from the ceiling. He ducks under hanging wires to greet passing employees, who often appear a bit starstruck in their CEO’s presence.  Nothing like a glimpse of the boss to get people motivated.

Following the tour, YY is ushered onstage for keynote practice. It feels a bit like a school play, as Charles the stage manager attempts to pull Lenovo’s leaders away from their work and corral them onto the stage.

YY wants to see what he’ll look like on stage from the back of the house, so Lenovo’s internal communications lead Khaner Walker stands in as body double. “Walk out with a smile, it is the most important thing that is going to register,” Charles advises. “You’re welcoming people,” adds an aide. “You’re the host.”

SETUP & REHEARSAL: 24 HOURS TO GO

The sun slowly rises on Nob Hill and peeks through the Masonic’s stunning mural window, which bathes the entryway in multicolored specks of light. The workers don’t seem to appreciate the sunrise. Many pulled all-nighters as the pressure to prepare for an encroaching Tech World ratchets up. They nurse coffee and energy drinks and rub the dark circles under their eyes, simultaneously sorting through lists of attendees and printing name badges.

A strange scene unfolds outside the main theater’s entrance. There’s a steel wall with holes, a bushel of potted plants and a group of confused interns attempting to make sense of it all. The interns, who just arrived in San Francisco fresh off a road trip from Lenovo’s North Carolina home base, have been tasked with crafting a living wall that will serve as a backdrop for portraits during Tech World. The group passes the plants in a line, forming a bona fide pot brigade. Lily, fern, lily, fern until all of the greenery has been placed in its proper spot.

“The city is on fire,” jokes intern Zack Green as he hands plants off. “We’re passing buckets to save a mother and child!” With less than 24 hours until Tech World, the interns keep the fun alive. Zack takes a moment to test the photo op for himself.

Inside the auditorium, the atmosphere is growing more tense. Sound engineers shout at each other from the rafters (“We need another 5x10 cord!” “I need gaffer tape!”) as the keynote team attempts to work out the finer details of lighting and sound effects.

On several occasions, a misplaced sound effect, errant light or missed cue brings the whole rehearsal crashing to a halt. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich is here. At one point YY expects Krzanich to enter from stage right but instead he appears from the center. “Take it back,” shouts the stage manager. “Let’s do it again.”

Helium-voiced social media star Meghan McCarthy provides some much-needed comic relief for the stressed keynote team. She’s a fan of Lenovo and has flown in to help introduce a prototype phone that can bend around her wrist like a watch. McCarthy gets ready to practice her schtick with Lenovo CTO Peter Hortensius. The pairing seems odd—the veteran engineer and the viral social media queen—but the two share a surprising chemistry.
“How do you usually rehearse your videos?” Hortensius asks.
“I don’t,” McCarthy responds.

The rehearsal is slow, tedious work. Some companies might have taken the easy way out: a less flashy keynote, simpler set-up, etc. But this is Lenovo, and everyone seems to have a deep emotional attachment to Tech World. While the process is chaotic, the team knows how to work hard and work together. They’re built tough. 

Google’s Johnny Lee, the architect of an augmented reality technology called Tango, gets a briefing on his keynote role. He’ll be introducing the groundbreaking Phab 2 Pro, a Tango-enabled phone that brings the power of augmented reality straight to our fingertips. Despite being known for his engineering prowess, Johnny has a natural stage presence. He throws jokes around as freely as he places dinosaurs on the stage (a prop for a Tango app demo that lets you interact with the otherwise extinct creatures from your phone).

YY’s staff continues to tweak his keynote address under increasing time pressure. The CEO takes a break for a quick interview on Weibo, a Chinese social media network.

David Roman, Lenovo’s Chief Marketing Officer, is the undisputed mastermind of Tech World, the man tasked with setting its tone, style and attitude (with extra emphasis on the latter). But even now nothing is set in stone and significant aspects of the show are still being defined through dialogue and compromise.

DOING WORK: 20 HOURS TO GO

The keynote is like a living, evolving entity. Almost everything about it, from the intro video to the script, is still subject to change. The script proves to be a sticky spot for the team. Jokes about Silicon Valley that felt funny on paper fall flat in the room. The writers pause to amend one joke, brainstorm another and then workshop it directly with YY from the stage. It’s a crash course in techie comedy.

At least 60 (!) drafts of the script have flown out of the stage-side printer thus far. Under the time crunch, there’s no room for writer’s block as the script team attempts to summon fresh lines on command.

YY’s assistants hover around him like doting stage moms. The stage manager coaches him to loosen up and shake off any stiffness. There’s a quiet hush in the wings, even during the dress rehearsal. It’s an oasis of calm that contrasts to the endless frenetic energy outside.

Back in the bowels of the Masonic, David Roman puts his serious demeanor on pause to film a goofy video with Meghan McCarthy. It’s not all boardrooms and PowerPoint decks for Lenovo execs. Meghan and David traipse around the auditorium, lip-synching to the Spice Girls, pretending to be the Queen of England and mock-running into each other. In the spoof video, she’s teaching Roman how to “go viral.”

In a hotel down the hill, just off of Union Square, jetlagged Lenovo Europe communications lead Antonia Ventura has spent the day whisking two-dozen equally jetlagged European tech journalists around Silicon Valley. They’ve just returned from touring Intel and Dolby. Tonight, they’ll set aside the tech talk for a dinner cruise around the Bay. Ventura hasn’t yet been inside the auditorium but she, like so many other employees, plays a huge role in the success of the event.

The sun begins to sneak behind some signature San Francisco clouds, signaling the evening’s pending arrival. Time is ticking down. Tomorrow morning the gates will swing open on Tech World. While the banners have been placed and the furniture arranged, the minutiae must be attended to in the remaining hours of daylight. Just one more sleep until it’s lights, camera, action.

THE BIG DAY: 1 HOUR TO GO
A lot seems to have happened overnight and the Masonic Auditorium now looks transformed and ready. The tables in the lobby have disappeared, the show floor is spotless and the demo stations are filled with shiny Lenovo products, ready to be ogled.

Is that Ashton Kutcher’s name badge in the pile? Passing employees snap photos as they shuffle through the pile, sleuthing for their own names.

The doors to the Masonic are ceremoniously unlocked and everyone from journalists to Lenovo superfans stream into the lobby to pick up their credentials. They queue in front of the gated auditorium entrance, eager to get front-row seats for the show, but there’s no getting by security just yet.

As they wait to get inside, attendees stop to admire Emile Norman’s massive “endomosaic” mural window, a beacon to diverse Masonic’s visitors since 1958 and an indisputable complement to the many colorful Lenovo banners.

A select few armed with selfie sticks and smartphones gain entry before the gates officially open. The interns’ living wall proves to be a perfect backdrop for photos, Periscopes and Snapchats (enhanced by Lenovo’s custom Tech World filter for the day).

Backstage, the commotion continues. Livestream producer Alan White just flipped the switch that will live-broadcast the show on YouTube. Only a few thousand people can fit into the auditorium but millions more will watch online from locations around the world. Alan is a little giddy. The show has yet to begin and already 1,000 people have tuned in for the preview reel. Meanwhile, CMO Roman paces in the wings, awaiting his cues. His nervous energy is palpable. “There are a lot of moving parts,” he says with a characteristic calm-under-pressure attitude.

Outside the gates to the auditorium, a line of people peer through the bars like a mass of caged tech fiends. They want in. Finally, at 9:20, the doors to the entryway open and the crowd pushes through in a slightly-controlled stampede. Tech World has officially begun.

In a dark hiding place behind the stage—and within earshot of where people are taking their seats—YY stands poised and ready. With just 10 minutes until showtime, he’s itching to get onstage and get things started.

Actor Ashton Kutcher is in the building. Unbeknownst to many, Kutcher is a serious tech investor and he’s here to introduce the snap-on Moto Mods he helped develop with Motorola. If there’s any moment that has made the Lenovo employees lose their cool, this is it. Nonetheless, this event is about business, not celebrity, and Kutcher seems locked in and ready.

SHOWTIME: 0 HOURS TO GOIt’s a full house inside the arena as eager Lenovo employees, journalists and tech fiends take their seats. It’s 10:02 and the presentation has yet to begin. A hush falls over the crowd as the lights go down and the opening video reel begins to play.

It's showtime.

Most Lenovo employees are now kicking up their heels for the first time in days. One exception is Joe Scarborough, who’ll spend the duration of the keynote taking pictures and shooting video footage to stream across social media.

Scarborough’s job is made easy as YY demonstrates natural charisma and onstage charm. He might not have been born for the limelight, but he has certainly embraced his role as Lenovo’s frontman.

In the front of the house, Lenovo comms VP Jeff Shafer clutches the master script -- draft 73. “The weight won’t be off my shoulders for another couple of hours,” he says. “But right now I am really confident in our team.”

There have been a few blips in the show, including a late entrance by Ashton, but Scarborough is sure to capture every bit of the action—good and bad. “My camera is connected to the Wi-Fi,” he says. “So any picture I take goes automatically to the cloud.”

When Joe gets shots of a wild "smart shoes" demo, members of Lenovo's global social media team (some onsite and some in Singapore) receive the photo almost instantly. Taylor Wilson coordinates it all from his trusty Moto phone. He vets, crops and distributes footage onto Lenovo’s global social channels even as the show continues to play out onstage. And, thanks to the real-time feed, his collegues in ~50 countries soon follow suit.

The show builds as it goes--new technologies each have their moment in the spotlight and special guests filter on and off the stage. Social media queen McCarthy, Intel CEO Krzanich, fashion designer Vivienne Tam, tech journalist Katie Linendoll and, of course, Kutcher take turns introducing everything from a virtual reality game to the radical smartphone snap-on Moto Mods. Then, just like that, it’s over. Done. 

DEMOS, RELIEF AND JOY
The lights come up and people head for lunch. Silver platters bedecked with sandwiches and coffee await them in the lobby. Within minutes, the auditorium is nearly empty. Nothing like tech innovation to make you build up an appetite. 

Employees like Yuszela Yusoff (the INsider wrangler) and Sarah O’Grady (the Meghan McCarthy wrangler) bask in the craziness of it all. But not for long. Soon they’ll be shuffled into the demo area to test out the products.

Ryan Freeman can't relax just yet. For the comms staffer, the big moment of the day starts now. He’s been tasked with interviewing Ashton Kutcher on video. As Freeman nervously glances at a list of questions, Kutcher strolls in, lithe and relaxed. He takes a bite of a brownie, then saunters to the stage where Ryan takes a crack at small talk before the camera rolls.

Ryan asks about Ashton’s history with tech investment and his relationship with Moto. Ashton sticks to business chit-chat only. He’s a serious investor, after all, far from the slacker rep that’s followed him since he starred on That Seventies Show.

Outside Kutcher’s private room, hundreds of fans are buzzing from demo to demo. Moto Mods product manager Andria Nickel is shepherding journalists eager to test the phones she helped develop. “I’m so excited I can finally talk about this,” she says, unfazed by the hoopla. “I’d be on the bus and couldn’t use my phone like every other person because we hadn’t launched the Moto Z yet. Being able to share it with people is so exciting.”

In another corner of the Masonic, CTO Hortensius is doing an interview on the future of technology. His thoughts? “This world of IT being something that we live in is a very foreign concept to a lot of us, but it is where everything will head,” he says. “And even the simplest device will feel incredibly powerful because it is driven by the cloud that supports all of it.”

On a nearby landing, Kate Chang is flustered. The Phab 2 Pro project manager is tasked with hosting an augmented reality rifle game demo that, right now, everyone wants to play at the same time. “Tech World is like when you have a party. Once it starts, you are relieved,” she says, although she doesn’t yet believe it herself.

YY soaks it all in. His keynote is behind him but the rest of his day is packed with events: once he’s done hosting a couple breakout sessions, he’ll head down Highway 101 to Silicon Valley, where he’ll host a dinner with fellow tech CEOs.

While YY relaxes, Carter Agar kicks up his feet up in a virtual living room. He’s showing off an Lowe’s home decorating augmented-reality app. “We’ve got the hardware, but it doesn’t come to life without the content. Tech means nothing without content,” Carter explains.

Across Nob Hill at the Fairmont Hotel, brand ambassador Sophie Sidhu shows off another side to Lenovo: business enterprise software. “In addition to products used for pure enjoyment, we’re trying to create devices that enable people to get work done,” she says. “Products that make people’s lives easier and more better.”

If anyone embodies the scrappy Lenovo spirit as a whole, it is Bryan Ushijima. He motions at a virtual reality gaming demo that currently surrounds him. “The fun thing about this,” he says, “is that the project fell into my lap a month before Tech World.” Without a hint of sarcasm he adds, “It’s always fun to experience new challenges.”

The hours before the show were stressful for Bryan, especially when he discovered that the builders were behind on the construction of his booth. “I just made friends with all the carpenters and set-up crew, and everyone pitched in. I bought them coffee. No drama, just awesome people and smiles. I feel like a champion.”

 

Gavin O'Hara is Lenovo's Global Social Media Publisher. Special thanks to our friends at Viewfind for the amazing photos.